By Freny Manecksha
Posted on February 16, 2013 in The Times of India, Crest Edition
Though the Verma Commission recommended that armed forces personnel accused of rape be tried as per civilian law, the ordinance was silent on the issue. Is national security coming in the way of justice?
In 2004, an iconic image, depicted a dozen Manipuri women who had stripped in front of the headquarters of Assam Rifles, holding banners saying “Indian Army Rape Us. ” The protest occurred after the body of 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama was found near Imphal on July 11, 2004. Manorama had been picked up from her home by 17 Assam Rifles on suspicion of being a militant. Says Chitra Ahanthem, editor of Imphal Free Press, “It was the sight of the the body which bore appalling wounds – scratch marks, deep gashes on her thighs and gunshot wounds on the genitals – that sparked off outrage and this unusual protest among the Manipuri women. ”
More than eight years later, Manorama and women of Manipur are still denied justice. In 2011, the Manipur government’s probe and call for action was stalled after the army challenged the Guwahati high court decision in the Supreme Court through a special leave petition saying no sanction had been given to the Manipur government to carry out a probe. Manipur comes under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and Section 6 says the state government cannot prosecute law enforcement agencies without sanction from the home ministry.
Such cases have led the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) to make suggestions to the Verma Commission to bring security troops under the criminal justice system. And though the commission in its report recommended that security persons accused of rape be tried under civilian law, the recent ordinance on sexual violence was silent on the issue.
PUDR observes in the suggestions to the Verma Commission how powers of search and seizure under AFSPA work as “permissions to enter households and harass and rape women with impunity.”
Another controversial case was the Kunan-Poshpora mass rapes of 1991 in Kashmir. Men were made to assemble in the fields at night while 23 women of the village, aged between 13 and 80, were raped allegedly by troops of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles on the night of February 23-24. No police investigations were carried out. A Press Council of India committee, headed by B G Verghese, claimed the complaints were fabricated. In October 2011, the State Human Rights Commission, acknowledging the sexual assaults, asked the state to start a fresh probe. But nothing has come of it.
The army, which resists all attempts to lift AFSPA, says it has its own justice delivery systems and there is a strong and vigilant court martial process. Legal activist Vrinda Grover observes, “While they do deliver some sentences, it is not commensurate with justice. There is no transparency since one has no access to court martial proceedings and no information is shared with the public or the victims. ” In several cases Right to Information applications are refused under exemptions.
One of the victims of Kunan-Poshpora, in her testimony to the Independent People’s Tribunal on Human Rights Violations in Kashmir, speaks of the challenge in filing FIRs because of fear of reprisal by the troops. She adds that although an FIR was lodged (RI/1387/83) at Trehgam police station on March 2, 1991, nothing came of it.
Another report “Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in J&K” by International People’s Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice in Indian Administered Kashmir and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons shows the lengthy and almost futile efforts of a particular case of torture and sexual assault in Sipan, Anantnag district.
In response to an RTI query the Jammu & Kashmir government in 2009 said sanction for prosecution had been sought from the defence ministry in 2006 but was still awaited. The ministry claimed the request had not been received. What is also significant is that it took 12 years for the J&K police to investigate and process the case for prosecution.
An even more alarming feature is that the culture of impunity has permeated to the police who do not come under AFSPA, some of whom are even awarded despite complaints of sexual violence against them. In Chhattisgarh, where there is militarisation but no AFSPA, police officer SRP Kalluri, who was awarded a gallantry medal this January, has been named by Ledhabai, the wife of a slain Maoist, as an accused for custodial rape and gangrape in a case filed in the Chhattisgarh High Court.
Last year there was outrage over adivasi school teacher Soni Sori’s letter to her lawyer stating that she was sexually assaulted and tortured by police officer Ankit Garg whilst in jail. Garg was given a gallantry award despite the complaints and Sori emerged as a global rallying figure for her vehement stand against atrocities perpetrated on adivasi women. Sori who has been jailed by Dantewada police on various counts won a crucial victory this week as she was acquitted for being a key accused in an incident of opening firing and burning Essar vehicles.
Commenting on this trend of rewarding tainted police officers Vrinda Grover says that by such rewards the state is assuring them that they will be safeguarded. It is telling women, she says, that their bodies are fodder for interests of national security.